Error or terror? India to clarify whether reported hijacking was false alarm or elaborate drill

Thursday, October 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ The Indian government was under pressure Thursday to clarify whether a reported hijacking of a jetliner from Bombay to New Delhi was a false alarm, a hoax or an elaborate security drill.

While the plane was still in the air, officials warned the pilot of an anonymous threat, and he locked the cockpit door, fearing hijackers were among his passengers. For an anxious hour, the Alliance Air jet sat on a runway at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport with 54 passengers and crew members aboard.

At least some of the passengers, confused and frightened, believed hijackers were inside the cockpit. It wasn't until government forces stormed the plane that it became clear there was no threat, the civil aviation minister said.

Several passengers on the Boeing 737 jetliner, which had taken off from Bombay at 11:15 p.m., said the pilot told them there had been an ``exercise'' to test security.

The incident prompted senior government, aviation and intelligence officials to scramble to an emergency session early Thursday.

``If this was an exercise, it should not have lasted more than an hour. This has put the whole nation in a state of anxiety and concern,'' said Chandrakant Kharge, a member of parliament who was aboard the plane.

Civil Aviation Minister Shahnawaz Hussain insisted there had been no government-planned security drill. He said a statement would be made later Thursday to clarify events.

Hussain said an anonymous phone warning of a hijacking was made to an air traffic control station in the western city of Ahmadabad, setting off the chain of events.

The plane's pilot, Capt. Ashwini Behl, was warned about the threat, Hussain said, and locked his cockpit door. Behl thought the hijackers were among the passengers, Hussain said, while the passengers apparently thought the hijackers were in the cockpit.

At one point during the four-hour episode, civil aviation secretary A.H. Jang told reporters there were two hijackers on the plane. Intelligence officials told the AP the hijackers had demanded flight plans for Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan, prompting the South Asian neighbor to put its airports on high alert and post additional soldiers at its airport in Islamabad.

When the plane landed in New Delhi, it taxied to a secluded spot, was surrounded by commandoes and blocked from taking off by fuel tankers, Hussain said.

``This was not a drill. Until 10 minutes ago we thought it was a hijack,'' Hussain told reporters shortly after the incident. ``It was only when the (government) commandos entered the cockpit that even the pilots realized that it was a false alarm.''

While the plane was waiting on the tarmac, passengers used mobile phones to call loved ones. Some believed the episode had been a drill, while others insisted the hijacking was for real.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Indian airports have been on highest alert for all threats.